“Years ago, I remember talking to a classmate before a test and hearing how much longer he’d studied for it than I had," says Tom Hoerr, head of the New City School in St. Louis. “I didn’t think much about it until the tests were returned a week later and I noticed the disparity in our scores. Mine was not higher. What I learned from that experience about the differences in how we had studied helped me understand why his grade was so much better. The idea that you can succeed by increasing effort caused me to step back and focus my energies. People might be smarter than I am, but they weren’t going to outwork me, I decided. I would persevere.”
As illustrated in Tom’s story, the ability to persevere is necessary to develop a mind-set for success because no one, no matter how talented, achieves everything every time. Perseverance is a necessary skill for discovering new ideas, and experiencing setbacks or failures, redrafting, and re-planning are all necessary steps toward developing it. Perseverance enables us to take risks, learn from our failures, and forge ahead with new and better information.
Typically, when we read a perseverance or grit success story, it often involves overcoming unbeatable odds or surviving dire circumstances. While these stories are compelling, they are not always relatable to the average person. It’s important that perseverance and grit are understood in more common circumstances because everyone, regardless of his situation, needs to develop these skills.
Perseverance is a skill that can be taught. Although most of us learn it through trial and error, it can and should be taught, just like any other key skill or competency. Perseverance is the quality that allows someone to continue trying even in the face of difficulty, adversity, or impossibility. Grit is another important skill aligned with perseverance.
Hoerr and his colleagues at the New City School have been working to incorporate grit in the classroom. To nobody’s surprise, Hoerr says, that’s not easy to do.
“But if the focus is on preparing students to succeed in life, not just in school, it becomes clear that we need to be sure students learn to respond to adversity,” he adds. “The first step is being transparent about the need for grit. It should be part of the common vocabulary and readily discussed by teachers, students, and parents.”
As parents, we should have frequent discussions with our children about the importance of these skills, and teach them to react constructively to a setback and then evaluate and re-plan if necessary. Here are some tips for fostering perseverance and grit in children, whether in the classroom, at home, or elsewhere:
- Regularly encourage children to try new things. You may also want to try something new with your child, like roller-skating or a new arcade or video game. No one is perfect at anything when they start, and this is a great way to show your child that falling down or not winning isn’t the end of the world.
- Adjust the degree of perseverance needed. If children need a small challenge, present one related to activities they already have ability in. If they need a bigger challenge, take them out of their prior-experience comfort zone.
- Share some instances when you’ve needed perseverance and grit to accomplish a difficult task. We don’t often talk about our earlier failures, so children sometimes think that adult successes all come with ease.
- Be overt. Tell them that they are working on perseverance skills and let them know that struggle and failure are likely. Knowing that they are meant to struggle makes it much easier to deal with.
- Be there for them when they do struggle or fail. Provide support, help them evaluate why things weren't successful, and guide them in determining how to replan and try again.
- Encourage them. Don’t reward or congratulate them only for achievement. Recognize effort and perseverance as well.
Everyone, regardless of one’s situation, needs to develop these essential skills. We can all benefit from having the ability to put forth the necessary effort and move forward after setbacks. By putting these skills into practice, your child will be better prepared to deal with challenges, to overcome obstacles, and to have the motivating force necessary to succeed in his endeavors.
Sean Slade and Thomas Hoerr are members of NBC Parent Toolkit’s Social & Emotional expert panel. Slade is director of Whole Child Programs at ASCD and coauthor of School Climate Change: How do I build a positive environment for learning? (ASCD, 2014). Hoerr is head of the New City School in St. Louis, Mo., and has worked with his faculty to implement the theory of multiple intelligences since 1988. His most recent book is Fostering Grit: How do I prepare my students for the real world? (ASCD, 2013).